Fiction: "Enter the Dragon. Later, Enter Another" by Lavie Tidhar
Completing Dahl: Dirty Beasts and Rhyme Stew

Review Round-Up: Westerns, War and the Under-seas

LambertSomewhere between three and five reviews, depending how you count them: Lee Floren's High Gun, J.L. Bouma's Vengeance, Eric Lambert's The Long White Night and Guy Boothby's The Kidnapped President and A Crime of the Under-seas.

Eric Lambert's The Long White Night (1965) - a story of war and its consequences. Lawrence Primrose is a born soldier, a working class stiff who 'finds himself' when he joins the army. He quickly rises through the ranks to become a completely detestable sergeant. He's by the book, unrelenting, priggish - but we forgive him because he's also a fierce bastard in combat, saving his men over and over again.

This is why his court martial for cowardice is such a surprise, and why the officer that breaks him, Colonel Goss, is the real monster of the piece. Years after the court martial and the fateful battle that prompted it, Johnny Hume (once a terrible soldier, now a half-decent psychologist) has set himself to reveal the awful truth behind the events of that fateful night.

The majority of the book is a helter-skelter mix of present day (Hume trying to find Primrose in the years after the war) and past (from boot camp through to the battle). This is all neatly managed, as the author makes untidy Hume and uptight Primose both empathetic and intriguing characters. The latter especially - the snarky Hume is a bit too much of a literary cliche, while Primrose seems to have some genuine pathos to him. What they do during the war, and how it impacts their lives after it, is all connected and capital-m-Meaningful. The author has a clear bone to pick with over-stuffed post-war politicians and a stratified class system, two themes that come through very clearly and by no means harm the book - it is good to read a book on war and its aftermath that tries to paint a picture broader than the central redemption story.

That said, The Long White Night collapses in the final half-dozen pages, when the 'dark secret' of the night and the court martial is revealed in a wacky twist ending that is so gimmicky that it wouldn't even work as a short story. The detail and emotion of the rest of the book is thoroughly wasted: all undermined by a genuinely ridiculous 'revelation'. Shame.

Lee Floren's High Gun (1979) and J.L. Bouma's Vengeance (1976) are impossible to review separately, I couldn't possibly distinguish between the two. [Man] has  [brother/wife] taken from him by evil gun-thugs. Don't underestimate [man], he's actually a trained badass, trying to avoid violence. This pushes [man] over the brink and he goes on the warpath. Thugs underestimate him. [Man] kills everyone. A beautiful [widow/prostitute] tries to get him to step off warpath and settle down for a life of matrimonial bliss. [Man] decides that being on the warpath suits him, and rides off into the sunset and probable sequels. Individually, neither book is in any way noteworthy. However, as a pair, they're interesting in the way they illuminate a paint-by-numbers genre stagnation.

BoothbyGuy Boothby's The Kidnapped President (1902) and A Crime of the Under-seas (1905) - two books by the prolific, turn-of-the-century Australian genre writer. The Kidnapped President follows the adventures of a young naval officer. Helmsworth is a talented young man with a blossoming career ahead of him. That is, until he's stitched up by an annoying captain. Too proud and honourable to accept the company's disciplining for an offense he didn't commit, Helmsworth is chucked out on the street. Instead of being next in line to captain a ship, he's out of work entirely. Now he'll never marry the fair Molly, the girl waiting for him back in his home town...

Opportunity knocks in the form of Don Guzman de Silvestre, a Spanish adventurer and former President of the South American republic of Equinata. Equinata, we learn, is a country that's had a revolution every few years since its founding, and Silvestre is lucky to have fled with his life. That said, Silvestre ain't ready to quit. He hires Boothby for the princely sum of £10,000 to carry out a convoluted scheme to kidnap Don Fernandez, the current President (see: "Dictator") of Equinata. Helmsworth isn't so keen on being part of an assassination plot, but Silvestre assures him that Fernandez will not be harmed - he just wanted Fernandez out of the way so Silvestre's old minions can help him swoop back in.

Well, Helmsworth is broke, so, why not? He gussies himself up as an aristocratic twit, decks out a fancy yacht (with Silvestre's expense account) and sails down to Equinata. As a foreign visitor of obvious means, Helmsworth is immediately accepted into the upper crust of Equianatan society. He quickly discovers that the political scene is more complicated that he would've thought. Silvestre's old allies are a weaselly bunch, and Fernandez is... uncommonly acute. It doesn't help that Fernandez's "niece" (wink, nudge) is drop-dead gorgeous, and Helmsworth has a hard time thinking clearly around her. Worst of all, Helmsworth starts to like Fernandez. Sure, he's the ruthless dictator of an impoverished country, but, hey, those blood-stained hands have an awfully firm handshake. MAN to MAN, they connect.

Of course, it all goes horribly wrong. Despite his qualms, Helmsworth is loyal to the man who paid him, and kidnaps Fernandez (avec niece, an unfortunate accident). But when he delivers Fernandez to Silvestre, Helmsworth gets cold feet - maybe Silvestre is going to kill the guy. Is this really worth ten thousand pounds?

The Kidnapped President is fun as long as you don't think too hard about it. Helmsworth's "honour" is his defining character trait, although his rigid morals are generally bent in the best direction of the plot. (He'll take a kidnapping assignment because Silvestre is a deposted dictator. He'll continue the assignment because he took the money. He'll renege on the assignment because Silvestre is going to kill Fernandez. Etc. etc.) Still, he does, more or less, get around to doing the right thing - if choosing between mercenary dictators has a 'right' decision.) It certainly helps that the Silvestre in Act III is essentially a scenery-chewing villain - the Spanish equivalent of Jeremy Irons in Dungeons & Dragons. Once Helmsworth finally picks a side for good, the book exhales and realxes into a few chapters of good ol' fashioned jaw-punching and minion-shooting. It then, rather regrettably, peters out in a series of slightly head-scratching denouements. Everyone, suffice to say, gets what they deserve, but in harsh and unexpected ways.

There are a few less-charming bits as well: Helmsworth is completely unconcerned with the people of Equinata, and his actual political involvement in the country is purely a matter of choosing between the two dictators. There's a thinly-veiled contempt for South America as a whole that runs through the book. Equinata - as well as the other, real countries that are mentioned - is basically a playground colony there for the taking. Hedonistic adventurers take turns poisoning one another to assume control of the dictatorial palace. Everyone and everything is painted as a bit silly and juvenile, and the actual fate of the country isn't actually seen as relevant. 

BoothbyStill, The Kidnapped President is a quick and entertaining read, with, on the whole, more entertainment value than dubious politics. Sadly, neither side of the equation holds true for the stories in the collection A Crime of the Under-seas: it is both boring and reprehensible.

The former becomes apparently in the first, titular story - despite a promising set-up, the actual "Under-seas" element is limited to a few short passages and most of the novella is spent travelling from place to place. (See also: A Dance with Dragons.) A stolen pearl, an underwater crime scene, pirates and murder - this should be interesting, yet, somehow Boothby saps all the life from it. Instead: travel. And much of it. 

Yet, "A Crime of the Under-seas" is still the best in this book. It is followed  in the collection by a handful of equally tepid adventure stories. In each of these, Boothby invariably begins with brief and, frankly, excellent, passages in which he describes the beauty of the stories' South Seas settings - evoking both a sense of wildness and an atmosphere of possibility. Then the plot starts, and it all goes to pieces. "The Treasure of Sacramento Nick" is perhaps the most impressive of the lot, at least as a literary curiosity, due to its complete and utter lack of ending.

After the adventure stories, the collection degenerates into stories of Australian "quaintness" - the Antipodean equivalent of Bret Harte's westerns, yet with neither warmth nor charm.The stories of cons, adventure and love are all based on an underlying meanness that's unpleasant to read: be it the rich man who forces his wife's lover to die in front of him, the land-owner who tries to drive off his neighbours, or the adulterers from Europe, forced to confront the marriages they left behind. Harte happily mocked the rough and ready ways of California for the East Coast market, but it was done with a clear sense of love, and, however tragic the story, there was always an underlying optimism and humanity. Boothby, however, seems hell-bent on exploiting the worst of his countrymen. It is ugly.

There is also a great deal of utterly horrendous racism, with "Quod Erat Demonstrandum" one of the most remarkably offensive stories I've ever read. (Eccentric gentleman of science buys an Aboriginal child and plays Pygmalion with her - sending her off to European schools and, eventually, of course, marrying her. But then when she returns to the Outback, she immediately reverts to "an old savage", obeying her "race instinct". Har har, jokes on him, he married someone "filthy".) Yikes.